Business Partnerships With Men Often Don't Benefit Women Credit: Man and woman at work image via Shutterstock

Women who start their own business would be best served by going it alone, new research finds.

Women who start businesses with men have limited opportunities to move into leadership roles and even fewer chances to take charge when they do so with their husbands, according to sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tiantian Yang, a UNC graduate student who led the study, said the research was designed to help explain gender inequality in new businesses, since previous studies had examined the issue only in established organizations.

Researchers studied a nationally representative sample of 362 mixed-sex startup teams, 70 percent of which were husband-wife partnerships. Their businesses were all small and still in the startup stages, such as bakeries, gift shops and building contractors.  

"Our explanation for more pronounced gender inequality in spousal teams is that when husband and wife work together, they carry with them the cultural expectations for the male breadwinner and the female homemaker roles into the business setting," Yang said. "And the more children there are at home, the more it amplifies the expectation that the woman will also take on the role of leader of the household."

The researchers found that gender inequality in entrepreneurial teams can be reduced when people adopt organizational templates, such as signing a formal operating agreement and developing a business plan in the early stages of the company's founding. These mechanisms help teams evaluate men and women's competence more equitably.

The researchers found that men are 85 percent more likely than women to be in charge when team members have not signed a formal ownership agreement, but men and women have about the same chance to lead when that team has adopted such a contract.

Howard Aldrich, chairman of UNC's sociology department and one of the study's authors, said these agreements help level the playing field.

"One of the things we hope this will do is provoke a conversation so that the next time a couple or a mixed-sex team starts talking about forming a business, they can ask, 'Who should be the boss? Who is better at this?'" Aldrich said. "'Let’s talk about the basis by which we'll decide that.'"

The study, published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, comes on the heels of a recent debate about businesses with all-male boards of directors and adds to a growing body of information that documents women's limited access to leadership roles in the business world.

"This work raises awareness of the conditions that limit women's access and also makes us aware of what might be done to increase the likelihood that women will attain positions of authority," Yang said.

The research was supported by the Kauffman Foundation.

Originally published on Business News Daily.